Brand-sponsored online communities are a big part of the Internet these days. Organizations as varied as gaming companies, soft drink makers, and nonprofits invest millions of dollars into getting their customers off Facebook and onto standalone websites and apps. And they’re following in the steps of an unlikely pioneer: Cosmetics firm Sephora. Years ago, Sephora discovered that building online communities for customers had unexpected benefits.
In 2010, Sephora opened an online community called Beauty Talk in collaboration with a marketing firm called Lithium. The new site did more than just give Sephora customers a place to trade beauty tips and network. Users’ accounts are linked to their social media presences and Sephora loyalty cards, giving the beauty company all sorts of access to deep user metrics Facebook and Twitter can’t offer. Although Sephora would not give exact metrics as of publishing time, Lithium confirmed over 1 million monthly page views for the site as of September 2014.
Michael Wu, Lithium’s chief scientist, told Co.Labs in a telephone conversation that Lithium’s platform has over 400 metrics it tracks user engagement with–which includes everything from content users view and post to aggregate benchmarks of how users behave on community sites. This means that clients such as Sephora, HP, Lenovo, Lego, Virgin Atlantic, and others can learn about customers’ social relationships and shopping preferences with much greater detail than they would on Facebook or Twitter.
In Lithium’s case, these detailed metrics led to finding unexpected insights about user behavior. For one thing, one of the best indicators of long-term engagement on a site is a user modifying their profile. Modifying a profile, it seems, signals engagement in sticking around a community site.
After looking through metrics, Sephora’s team found that users of the bulletin board spent 2.5 times more on the company’s products than the average customer. Not only that, but they discovered the site’s heaviest users spent an average of 36.5 hours on Beauty Talk weekly.
These “superfans” also spent more than 10 times at Sephora than the average customer. Because they loved the brand so much, they naturally gravitated toward the company’s board–and gave Sephora a brand new way to conduct outreach to their biggest customers.
One thing that surprised Wu was the discovery that Sephora and other brands can predict who a superfan is before they begin responding to every message and every thread. This came through a counterintuitive discovery.
Wu and his team thought that the easiest way to predict superfans is to look for people who signed up for an account on Beauty Talk or another client’s site, and then immediately started heavily posting. But it turned out that wasn’t the case–these users tended to have an immediate problem that needed resolving, and they then moved on from the site once it was solved.
Instead, it turns out that superfans can be predicted based on their lurking. The more a user logs into a site day after day, week after week, month after month, the more likely they are to become an active superfan. Posting activity had relatively little to do with it.
While Lithium is one of the largest companies in the business of making message boards for companies–they make their profits through a combination of platform fees and usage/page views–they’re not the only ones. Competitors like Jive Software and Buddy Media offer similar services designed to help companies identify their biggest online influencers and deliver more detailed customer information than Facebook or Twitter offer alone.
Wu told me that in the case of his company, the message boards they create broadly fall into three categories: Sales and marketing (Beauty Talk), peer support (Microsoft’s Skype Community), and innovation (Verizon crowdsourcing new functionality). User behavior changes broadly across all three of them.
Boards in the sales and marketing vertical tend to have long message threads with relatively short message length that stretch out over time. Peer support boards instead have initially long, detailed messages and threads that end as soon as a problem is resolved. Innovation communities tend to have a lot of upvoting and downvoting, and, as Wu puts it, a lot of “voting and validation.” Because users leave extensive trails of digital breadcrumbs as they lead digital lives that cover everything from their geographic locations to their shopping habits, it produces valuable insights when figuring out everything from targeted advertising to what to stock in which stores.
In the meantime, for ordinary Internet users, that online forum you’re using for tech support or product tips? There’s a marketing team behind it.